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Crews racing time, weather in building TRAX line to U.

Still, the contractor, UTA would like to finish project early

SHARE Crews racing time, weather in building TRAX line to U.

When TRAX takes its first passengers east to the University of Utah, it will travel the posted speed limits on 400 and 500 South.

But for now, the University TRAX light-rail extension is on an accelerated schedule and will need to avoid all delays — including a predicted bad winter and unexpected archaeological finds — if it hopes to be up and running for the 2002 Winter Games.

The 2.5-mile light-rail spur from Main Street to the University of Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium was given the final financial green light by the Federal Transit Administration earlier last week.

The Utah Transit Authority, which will build and operate the line, is under no obligation to complete the spur prior to the Games. SLC Rail Constructors, the consortium of construction firms that will build the line, is under contract to complete its work by November 2002 — long after the Games.

But UTA and its contractor would like to finish early. The tentative construction schedule released last week calls for an opening date of Nov. 29, 2001 — well ahead of the February Games. Opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympics will be at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

"The hardest part of this project has been getting it to construction," said UTA General Manager John Inglish. "The actual construction will be much easier, we hope."

In order for the University TRAX line to be part of the Olympic transportation plan, everything must fall into place.

Predictions of a severe winter do not bode well. And the work schedule cannot afford a delay similar to the one encountered on the north-south line when a Fremont Indian archaeological site was discovered beneath South Temple.

"The way we're approaching it now is we're assuming we're going to get it done" in time for the Games, said Bob Clements, project director for SLC Constructors. "We're not dooming ourselves to fail up front. We're assuming it's going to happen. We've got our optimistic glasses on here."

Those are the kinds of glasses that can't perceive heavy winter snowstorms or endless days of spring rainfall.

"There are many things that are out of everybody's control," acknowledged Steve Greene, project manager for UTA. "Obviously, everyone would like to be done by the Olympics, but contractually it's not required."

The project has been divided into five geographic areas. Heavy construction will begin shortly after Labor Day in the second segment, on 400 South between 400 and 800 East. Crews already have begun relocating utility lines in that four-block area.

During the day, the contractor is required to keep at least two lanes of traffic open in each direction throughout the work zone. And project segments adjacent to each other cannot be restricted to two lanes at the same time.

For example, when the segment from 400 to 800 East is reduced to two lanes in each direction, traffic on either side of it will be open to three lanes in each direction.

"We are trying to build this project with the least impact possible," Greene said. "There's always going to be some impact. We're trying to minimize that."

UTA was criticized for the impact on Main Street businesses when the north-south line was built. But the Main Street light-rail work was combined with a Salt Lake project to completely rebuild the street surface and sidewalks of Main. That will not be the case on 400 South.

Clements promised SLC Rail Constructors will make it convenient for motorists to access businesses along the route.

"The main battle we have here is to battle the public perception that construction on 400 South is to be avoided," Clements said. "We want to have a smooth traffic flow.

"It's not going to be total construction from Main Street to 900 East. It's a substantial construction project but with fairly low impact. The traffic studies are showing there shouldn't be significant delays."

The construction work may be less predictable, however, than motorists have been used to on I-15. Instead of having one segment under construction for six months like an I-15 interchange, SLC Rail Constructors may shift heavy construction from one segment to another and back again within the frame of several weeks or months.

Some scheduling decisions have not been made yet, in part because the project is employing the more fluid, and faster, design-build method.

The federal government will pick up 80 percent of the bill for the $118.5 million project. SLC Rail Constructors will be paid $71.9 million to build the line. The rest of the money will be spent on 10 new light-rail vehicles, ticket vending machines, property acquisition and other needs.

The four University TRAX passenger stations will be at 200 East near the main branch of the Salt Lake City Library, 600 East near Trolley Square, 900 East and at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Like the main TRAX line, trains will run every 15 minutes during the day and every 20 minutes during off-peak hours. Trains may carry more cars and run more frequently on special-event days, such as University of Utah football games.

Anyone with a problem or complaint specific to the University TRAX project can call a 24-hour hotline — 556-TRAX.

E-mail: zman@desnews.com